Just days before the one-year anniversary of a fiery crash that took the lives of five Georgia Southern University students, attorneys announced that “substantial” settlements were reached in wrongful death lawsuits regarding three of the victims.
Friday, April 22, marks the date one year ago on which Caitlyn Nicole Baggett of Millen, Emily Elizabeth Clark of Powder Springs, Abbie Lorene DeLoach of Savannah, Morgan Bass of Leesburg and Catherine “McKay” Pittman of Alpharetta lost their lives when a tractor-trailer plowed into them as they sat in their vehicles in a line of traffic that was halted due to cleanup efforts following a previous wreck.
Families of all five victims filed wrongful death lawsuits in Bryan County in May. Joseph A. Fried of Fried, Rogers, Goldberg LLC of Atlanta, who represents the families of Bass and Pittman, said no trial dates have yet been set for his clients' cases.
Both the cases of the families of Baggett and Clark had been set for trial on May 16 in Bryan County Superior Court before Judge Paul Rose, and DeLoach’s family’s case had been set for trial on April 18 in Bryan County State Court before Judge Jack Carney. However, settlements were reached in all three of those cases, according to a press release issued Wednesday.
Attorneys Robert D. Cheeley, Brandon L. Peak and David T. Rohwedder of Butler, Wooten, Cheeley and Peak LLP of Atlanta and Columbus served as lead counsel. Attorney Billy N. Jones of Jones, Osteen and Jones of Hinesville served as local counsel, with DeLoach’s family represented by attorneys Mark Tate and Jim Shipley of Tate Law Group in Savannah. More than a dozen depositions were taken as attorneys gathered information on the cases.
In the released statement, Cheeley said attorneys “achieved substantial settlements for their clients” and that the truck driver had struck the stalled cars while speeding at 68 mph “without hitting the brakes.”
A press conference with the victims’ families is scheduled for Thursday at 11 a.m. in front of the GSU School of Nursing building on Forest Drive.
John Wayne Johnson of Shreveport, Louisiana, was driving a semitrailer owned by Total Transportation when the seven-car pileup occurred on Interstate 16 in Bryan County that morning.
Traffic was backed up and halted due to a previous wreck, caused when tractor-trailer driver Robert Tayloe of Dublin rammed into the rear end of a motor home, causing both vehicles to flip and roll.
A few hours later, Johnson's tractor-trailer slammed into a car stopped in the line of traffic that was halted due to the first accident, causing a chain reaction.
According to the lawsuits, Johnson's truck was traveling at 68 mph and did not slow when it crashed into the Toyota Corolla occupied by Clark, Pittman and Baggett. A Ford Escape in front of the Corolla held DeLoach and Bass, as well as survivors Megan Richards of Loganville and Brittany McDaniel of Reidsville. All were GSU nursing students who were on their way to their last clinical of the year in Savannah.
In an earlier interview, Fried confirmed reports that Johnson had a significant amount of pornography in his truck cab when the crash occurred.
"We are unsure whether he was online at the time (of the collision)," he said. "There was a lot of porn in the truck. We don't think he was actively texting at the time (of the wreck), but he had been earlier."
Cheeley said Wednesday that the driver’s cellphone records were unavailable, so it was undetermined whether Johnson was talking, texting or viewing something on his phone when the crash occurred.
“Though he denies it, Johnson likely either fell asleep behind the wheel or was distracted by taking his eyes off the roadway, perhaps looking at his cellphone,” Cheeley said. “Johnson claimed he could not remember the four-digit code to his iPhone, so we will never know if he was looking at something on the phone at the time of the wreck.”
Johnson was hauling paper products to a Dollar General store in Savannah, Cheeley said.
The wrongful death lawsuits named Total Transportation of Mississippi; its parent company, U.S. Xpress Enterprises; U.S. Xpress Inc.; U.S. Express Leasing Inc.; the holding company, New Mountain Lake Holdings LLC; and Mountain Lake Risk Retention Group LLC, an insurer of the U.S. Xpress companies, all of Chattanooga, Tennessee. The suits also named Johnson, the driver, according to the release.
In released statements, attorney Peak described the horrors the victims likely endured in the seconds before they were killed.
“We determined from the black box in Abbie’s vehicle and the physical evidence at the scene that seconds before impact, Abbie and Emily unfortunately saw the tractor-trailer barreling down on them from the rear and did everything in their power to get out of the way,” he said. “They slammed on the gas and turned their vehicles to the right, but unfortunately did not have time to get completely off the roadway prior to the collision. Abbie’s reactions and quick thinking likely saved the lives of Brittney McDaniel and Megan Richards, who were passengers in her vehicle.”
Cheeley went on to point out what he called the defendant companies’ negligence.
“It was clear from the depositions of company employees that Total Transportation and its parent company, U.S. Xpress, were negligent in many ways,” he said. “The negligence of the companies is what led to the deaths of these aspiring young nurses.”
He added that Total Transportation President and CEO John Stomps and Vice President of Safety and Recruiting Bob Viso “admitted in sworn deposition testimony that Johnson, who did not meet Total Transportation hiring criteria due to previously rolling a tractor-trailer while employed by another company, asleep at the wheel, should have never been hired and allowed behind the wheel of a Total Transportation tractor-trailer.”
Cheeley said that Total Transportation officials made Johnson “wait at the terminal (in Ridgeland, Mississippi) for approximately 10 hours before having his rig ready to roll.” Instead of beginning his trip at 7 a.m. on April 21 as scheduled, Johnson waited in the driver’s lounge after having ridden the bus all night and began his trip at 5 p.m., expecting to make it to Savannah overnight.
Total Transportation didn’t ask Johnson if he was safe to drive and assigned him a load that required him to drive through the night, even though they knew about the incident in which he had fallen asleep at the wheel and crashed before, Cheeley said.
Evidence and prevention
Attorneys said they hope the families get closure after the settlements and that transport companies nationwide learn a lesson from the tragedy.
“The state patrol did a very good job investigating this wreck and securing the evidence until we could have a chance to look at the wrecked vehicles with our expert,” attorney Jones said. “The black box data from the tractor-trailer, along with the absence of tire marks on the road, proved that Johnson never applied his brakes before the collision.”
The semitrailer was not equipped with a video camera or a collision-avoidance system, which is designed to apply the brakes when a vehicle is stopped in front of the truck, he said.
“In light of this epic tragedy and the national attention which it has generated, we truly hope that these defendants, and all trucking companies nationwide, will take immediate steps to ensure that professional drivers are not … driving while distracted,” Cheeley said, adding that tractor-trailer drivers should be held accountable just as school bus drivers. “We believe that when the truck driver knows his employers can watch his actions, he will likely avoid engaging in conduct which takes his eyes of the road.”
Peak said that he hopes these answers can help the victims’ families heal and that the national attention given to the case serves as a lesson to others.
“Our clients wanted answers about why their daughters were killed so that they could hopefully prevent any other families from having to experience the heartache they have endured and continue to endure,” he said. “These families showed incredible courage and perseverance throughout this very difficult process. … There is no perfect ending in a case like this, but we are confident the actions of these families took to shine a light on the senseless decisions that took the lives of their daughters will save other lives in the future.”
Attorney Rohwedder said he hopes Total Transportation, as well as other transport companies, will be more careful and selective when hiring drivers.
“By these large settlements, it is our sincere hope that Total Transportation and U.S. Xpress will never again jeopardize the lives of the motoring public by hiring drivers who have been fired by other companies for unsafe driving practices,” he said.
Cheeley also acknowledged the outpouring of support from Statesboro residents and GSU students, faculty and staff.
“On behalf of all the families who lost a daughter in this terrible tragedy, we want to thank the Georgia Southern family and indeed, the good people of Georgia, who have demonstrated a tremendous expression of love, prayers and support over the past year,” he said. “We hope that this will bring closure to their great loss.”
In September, East Georgia Regional Medical Center gifted Georgia Southern University with $41,670 for the university's School of Nursing Students' Memorial Fund, established in memory of the five victims.
Herald reporter Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.